Martin Truex Jr.’s ticket to the Super Bowl on Sunday gave him a seat in a suite, but he only used the edge. The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion already has his blood boiling two weeks before the Daytona 500.
“I was going nuts,” said Truex, a New Jersey native and lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, after watching his team win the NFL title. “I barely had a voice this morning when I woke up.”
Truex’s spot in the so-called Super Bowl of stock car racing — the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 — will kick off what is already stacking up as a challenging and crossroads season for him and Denver’s No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team.
Truex completed one of the most dominating runs in NASCAR’s recent history when he held off Kyle Busch on the final laps at Miami-Homestead Speedway in November to win both the final race of the season and the season series title. He won eight races last season, more than any other driver, and finished with the most top-fives (19) and top-10s (26).
But his honeymoon as defending champion will quickly switch toward hunkering down for the future. Truex is in the final year of a two-year contract extension, after he initially joined Furniture Row in 2014.
“I’d like to start talking about it,” Truex, 37, said Monday. “I really want to end my career here.”
Truex is eyeing a two- to three-year deal with Furniture Row, he said. But “I would talk about five; that’s a roundabout number. That’s the number where I might be at a crossroads on what direction I might go: How are things going? Am I as good as I need to be still?”
In just four seasons helming the No. 78 car, Truex has twice finished among the top five at season’s end. His career is peaking in line with FRR, a unique mountain-based team that debuted in 2005 in a minor-league circuit and didn’t regularly run a full-time season until 2010. Since then, the 78 steadily improved before breaking through among NASCAR’s old-boy elite last season.
But the team is dealing with its own future. Furniture Row also has two crucial contracts pending, one with Toyota Racing Development, the manufacturer of the 78’s engines, and a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing meant to share strategies and development information. Both those deals carry FRR only through this season. The team’s sponsorship deals — it will be fully sponsored for the first time this year — also will end after 2018.
“We’re in a contract year with everything,” said Joe Garone, FRR’s general manager. “I have a very good feel on all of them. It’s all looking good. The sooner, the better. At least certainly by July, we’d like to start planning for 2019. At this point, it’s a matter of dominoes falling.”
Garone prioritized Truex and Toyota as the elements that will set up the 78 for the long term. He is also trying to gain enough interest in adding a second car to the team for 2019. FRR did race a second car last season, the No. 77 piloted by Erik Jones, but Jones agreed in July to race for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 car this year.
For now, Truex can see new-found advantages and drawbacks. Back to a single-car team, his Park Hill-based shop can focus on building three cars for Daytona instead of seven. Two of those cars left Denver for Florida on Monday night.
“We’re so much further ahead building cars right now,” Truex said. “There were some shop guys who worked crazy hours. Lots of 24-hour days.”
He will also be the new focus of attention on the track. NASCAR has not seen a back-to-back season champion since Jimmie Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10. Jeff Gordon did it before him, in 1997-98. So Truex may face a difficult slog.
“In racing, whether it’s in go-carts or in the cup series, the guy who is winning, the champion, he’s the benchmark,” Truex said. “He’s who you’re trying to beat. And that’s us. Trying to stay there is tough. It will be a challenge.”
Truex in 2016 finished second at Daytona by mere inches — the closest finish in the race’s history. It was his best career finish at NASCAR’s biggest race. And he is immediately focused on winning there for the first time.
But the question of his future in the 78 will continue to hover.
“With what we have going on, this is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s not a pressing issue. It’s not like I’m nervous or worried about it. I think I’ve proven myself worthy of this team and vice versa.”